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Women Entrepreneur Successes

What Sheryl Sandberg Taught Me About Giving Criticism

How many times have you tried to give feedback that totally falls flat?

Kim Scott

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Shortly after I joined Google to lead online sales and operations for AdSense in 2004, I gave a presentation to Google’s CEO and founders on the performance of AdSense. Despite the fact that AdSense was doing well, and even though my boss, Sheryl Sandberg, was sitting next to me in a show of support, I felt nervous. Luckily, we had a good story to tell: The business was growing at an unprecedented rate. As I looked around the room, I caught the eye of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, whose head had snapped out of his computer when I’d declared how many new customers had signed up in the past month. I’d distracted him from his email — a triumph! “How many did you say?” he asked. I repeated the number, and he almost fell out of his chair.

I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. After I finished, I felt that mix of euphoria and relief that follows a successful presentation. My boss was waiting for me by the door and I half expected a high five. Instead, she asked if I’d walk back to her office with her. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Something hadn’t gone well.

“You are going to have an amazing career here at Google,” Sandberg began. She knew how to get my attention — I had three failed start-ups under my belt and badly needed a win. “And your ability to be intellectually honest about both sides of an argument, not just your own, bought you a lot of credibility in there.”

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

She mentioned three or four specific things I’d said to illustrate her point. I’d been worried that I wasn’t arguing my points vehemently enough, so this was welcome news to me.

“I learnt a lot today from the way you handled those questions.” This didn’t feel like mere flattery. I could tell from the way she stopped and looked me in the eye that she meant it. She wanted me to register that something I’d been worried about being a weakness was actually a strength.

This was interesting, but I wanted to file it away to think about later. That nagging feeling persisted in my stomach. What I really wanted to know was, what had I done wrong? “But, something didn’t go well, right?”

Sandberg laughed. “You always want to focus on what you could have done better. Which I understand. I do, too. We learn more from failure than success. But, I want you to focus for a minute on what went well, because overall it really did go well. This was a success.”

I listened as best I could. Finally, she said, “You said ‘um’ a lot. Were you aware of it?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I know I say that too much.” Surely she couldn’t be taking this walk with me just to talk about the “um” thing. Who cared if I said ‘um’ when I had a tiger by the tail?

“Was it because you were nervous? Would you like me to recommend a speech coach for you? Google will pay for it.”

“I didn’t feel nervous,” I said, making a brushing off gesture with my hand as though I were shooing a bug away. “Just a verbal tic, I guess.”

“There’s no reason to let a small thing like a verbal tic trip you up.”

“I know.” I made another shoo-fly gesture with my hand.

Sandberg laughed. “When you do that thing with your hand, I feel like you’re ignoring what I’m telling you. I can see I am going to have to be really, really direct to get through to you. You are one of the smartest people I know, but saying ‘um’ so much makes you sound stupid.”

Now that got my attention.

Sandberg repeated her offer to help. “The good news is a speaking coach can really help with the ‘um’ thing. I know somebody who would be great. You can definitely fix this.”

Related: Feel Like Quitting? These 9 Women Prove Grit Can Lead You To Massive Success

radical-candor

How you can do what Sheryl did

Think for a moment about how Sandberg handled that situation. Even though the overall talk had gone well, she didn’t let the positive result get in the way of pointing out something I needed to fix. She did so immediately, so that the problem didn’t hurt my reputation at Google. She made sure to point out the positive things I’d accomplished in the presentation, and what’s more, she did so thoroughly and sincerely — there was no attempt at ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between bogus positives.

Her first approach was gentle but direct. When it became clear that I wasn’t hearing her, she became more direct, but even then she was careful not to ‘personalise,’ not to make it about some essential trait. She said I “sounded” stupid rather than I was stupid. And I wasn’t in this alone: She offered tangible help. I didn’t feel like an idiot with defects, but a valuable team member she was ready to invest in.

This conversation was extremely effective on two counts. First, it made me want to solve my ‘um’ problem immediately; after only three sessions with a speech coach, I had made noticeable improvement. Second, it made me appreciate Sandberg and inspired me to give better guidance to my team. The way she gave praise and criticism got me thinking about how to teach other people how to adopt this style of management.

All this from a two-minute encounter.

Wow. How many times have you tried to give feedback that totally falls flat? How can you, like Sandberg, give guidance in a way that confronts a specific situation and creates ripple effects that change how everyone communicates?

I have spent the decade since that encounter coaching the next generation of Silicon Valley leaders to change their approach to guidance — both praise and criticism. It’s surprisingly simple. Anyone can learn it. There are two dimensions to good guidance: Care personally and challenge directly. When you do both at the same time, it’s ‘radical candor’. It’s also useful to be clear about what happens when you fail on one dimension (ruinous empathy), the other (obnoxious aggression) or both (manipulative insincerity). Being clear about what happens when you fail to care personally or challenge directly will help you avoid backsliding into old habits too common to all of us.

Many of the people I coach have found this framework helpful in being more conscious of what kind of guidance they are getting, giving and encouraging. Another important thing I stress with my clients: It’s vital to remember that very important lesson from the ‘um story’ — don’t personalise. The names of each quadrant refer to guidance, not personality traits. They are a way to gauge praise and criticism, and to help people remember to do a better job offering both. They are not to be used to label people. Labeling hinders improvement. Ultimately, everyone spends some time in each of the quadrants. We are all imperfect. I’ve never met anyone who is always radically candid. To repeat, this is not a ‘personality test’.

This article is excerpted from Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott.

This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.

Company Posts

Designing Her Destiny

Oh Yay! owner, Emmerentia van den Hoven does business her way.

QuickBooks SA

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In 2011, Emmerentia van den Hoven took a leap of faith when she decided to leave her graphic design job at an agency and pursue her real passion – and it has paid off tenfold. Here’s her story.

“When I started planning my own wedding eight years ago, I fell in love with wedding design and wanted to do that for the rest of my life. Designing for brands had become a set of rules rather than being creative, and I’d always wanted to work for myself. So, in September 2011, I turned my seven-month-old side gig into a fully-fledged business and launched Oh Yay!

I have to hustle every month to get new clients because every client will use my services maximum twice – first for the wedding invitations and then for the stationery on the day – so I don’t normally have returning clients.

Because my main business is seasonal and usually once-off per customer, I have branched out into branding for small businesses in the beauty and lifestyle industry. I also earn a passive income through the Oh Yay! online shop where I sell wedding décor items.  Oh Yay Kids – my other online store – is my passion project. I launched it just before my second child was born, adding items to the store that I made for my two boys when I saw a need for it. I then expanded into prints for nurseries and kids’ party stationery.

I work for myself and have no employees, so the fact that QuickBooks lets me load all my services, products and prices in one place makes running my business so much easier. Being an entrepreneur is difficult because you don’t know if you’ll be successful or not. But if you believe in and love what you’re doing, it reflects in your work and the service you give.”

Less admin, more of what you love

quickbooks-business_emmerentia-van-den-hoven

When Oh Yay! was launched, along with her dream of being an entrepreneur, came the nightmare of other administrative tasks. But that changed in 2018 when Emmerentia started using QuickBooks.

“When I was using spreadsheets to balance my books, I was spending 80% of my time on admin, which left very little time to tend to customers’ orders. I now spend no more than 25% of my time on admin, which is important, especially when it comes to the speed at which I send quotes. You don’t get any work if you don’t send out quotes and it’s tough to juggle the admin with your actual job of running the business.

Numbers were never really my strong point, so having a professional quote done in record time not only projects professionalism, but the format also changes the way new clients see me. In my industry, the quicker you can send a quote out, the likelier you’ll get the clients’ business. It gives legitimacy to my business. The QuickBooks system operates so seamlessly that clients communicate with me differently, like I have my own accounting department, when in fact, I’m a one-woman-show.

I used to dread doing admin, but now it’s so easy and quick. I’m not just saying this – QuickBooks changed my life.”

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Watch List: 50 Black African Women Entrepreneurs To Watch

These female entrepreneurs are breaking barriers, transforming industries and inspiring change on the continent.

Diana Albertyn

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Women Entrepreneur Successes

Owner Of Nouwens Carpets Shares Success Lessons From Running A 50 Year Old Family Business

Embrace technology every chance you get.

Nadine Todd

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A company that’s been active for more than five decades in an industry that’s hundreds of years old doesn’t sound like a recipe for innovation — and yet that’s exactly what Luci Nouwens, owner of Nouwens Carpets, is focused on.

The modern carpet has a history that goes back thousands of years. And despite the hipster trend of reclaimed and hard wood flooring, the carpet still remains a popular choice for consumers.

In South Africa, a name that’s synonymous with quality carpeting is Nouwens. When Cornelis Nouwens arrived in the country in the 1950s, bringing the skills of a trade which he had mastered alongside his father in Tilburg, the hub of the Netherlands’ wool textile industry, he passed on the skills and the love of the craft to his family and to workers in the Harrismith region in KwaZulu Natal.

More than 50 years after her father started it in 1962, the company remains family owned, and is headed by Luci Nouwens, who has been with the business for 48 years.

“We have maintained our reputation for premium quality all this time by paying meticulous attention to crafting standards and selecting only the finest raw materials,” says Luci. “Equally important is that we have innovated at every opportunity, embracing technology without ever compromising the traditional craftsman’s spirit.”

Innovation drives growth

Businesses that innovate are able to grow and hire more employees. As a result, they grab a bigger share of the market. That’s true regardless of the size of your business: If you innovate, you can scale up.

In 1968 Nouwens launched a pure karakul wool carpet that was extremely hard wearing and took the company into the commercial carpet market. Luci recalls the manufacturing of the carpet as “a major feat of unique textile engineering.” Another innovation in 2005 was the introduction of a totally new style of flat weave wool carpet, a very clean, minimalist and natural look requiring much less wool without compromising on wearability.

“These innovations are just two of many that have allowed the business to boost its market share over the years,” says Luci. “But beyond that, innovation has enabled Nouwens Carpets to form the backbone of economic activity and upliftment in the local community around Harrismith. This has allowed us to make substantial investment in providing education and skills development for the local population, to ensure that the craft is preserved for generations to come.”

Related: 10 Successful SA Women Entrepreneurs’ Top Advice On Balancing Work And Family

Innovation enables sustainability

Innovation in technologies and how they are applied is key to enabling a manufacturer like Nouwens to create new business value, while also protecting the planet.

“We have used technology to enable sustainable manufacturing, for the benefit of the business, the community, and our customers.”

Nouwens selects equipment, materials and manufacturing methods based on their degree of sustainability and protection of the environment. The company is also a member of the Green Building Council of South Africa and submits its products for VOC testing to ensure that harmful emissions are significantly reduced.

“Ultimately, we are driven by a passion for textiles and the ability to constantly find better ways to produce beautiful products. After the downturn in the economy, we started to produce more cost-effective commercial nylon yarns, and in 2017, we became the new kid on the block for synthetic grass. The bottom line is that a true entrepreneur does what has to be done when the time comes.” — Monique Verduyn

The role of disruption in creating value

A disruptive business is a business that challenges and potentially changes the status quo. From a mindset point of view, a culture that questions ‘why’ can help foster organisational and market disruption. But disruption for the sake of disruption is self-defeating, it needs to be on the back of making things better and based on commercial principles, i.e. people or market players actually wanting to be disrupted.

The starting point is this: Does someone, or a market, value what you’re producing? If the answer is yes, you have a commercially viable disruption. Disruption that is valued by its target market has the best chance of resulting in success.

Get that right and you’ll have a customer base, you’ll gain traction and you’ll attract investors, provided you’re also making a meaningful and sustainable difference to your target market or community. — Ian Lessem, CEO, HAVAIC Investment and Advisory Firm

Collaboration

Team up with customers and competitors.

There’s more power in collaboration than competition. We’re stronger together than when we’re apart. When it comes to working with competitors, consider this: They may have something that you don’t, or vice versa, and 50% of something is always more than 100% of nothing. You’re then positioned to add value before you add an invoice, so your clients benefit from your relationships, and the market wins. From there, you become your client’s go-to-person, because you’re putting them first.

Customers are also a great source of knowledge: They might just have the answers you’re looking for, but are you asking them the right questions? They often know more about an entrepreneur’s business than they know themselves, because they’re on the receiving end of your offering. One way to collaborate with customers is to ask them more questions about yourselves, themselves and their clients. Harness their perspective and develop yourself to give them what they want, not what you think they want. — Wes Boshoff, founder, Imagine Thinking

Related: Watch List: 50 Top SA Business Women To Watch

PR

Know what your audiences are interested in

As a brand, there are many ways to ensure your audience is paying attention to you, but you can’t expect them to find you unless you’re sharing content that captures their interest. If you send out press releases, don’t be too rigid or plain. Audiences want to be engaged, and not to have to deal with long, cumbersome information. An infographic, along with a video or pictures will make your release easier to ingest and more memorable. People don’t want boring figures, they want relatable stories.

One way to be relatable is by tapping into influencer marketing. This doesn’t mean you need celebrities with the highest followings to endorse you. Micro-influencers are proving to have just as much clout as those with larger followings. Evidence shows that micro-influencers have a more established and deeper connection with their audience, which translates to loyalty and a readiness to follow their advice. The trick is to find the micro-influencers who are speaking to the audience you want to reach.

Big data plays a key role in painting a picture of who is ‘out there’. With the right information, you can tailor your content to a specific audience. Big data can show you what topics and problems are trending in your industry, so that you can get the jump on them. Use big data to deliver your own insights on current topics, shaping and leading the conversation, converting your audience’s attention into action. — Madelain Roscher, founder and managing director, PR Worx and Status Reputation Management

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